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“the fieldworker cannot and should not attempt to be a fly on the wall.”

11 May 2011

In learning about others through active participation in their lives and activities, the fieldworker cannot and should not attempt to be a fly on the wall. No field researcher can be a completely neutral, detached observer, outside and independent of the observed phenomena (Pollner and Emerson 1988). Rather, as the ethnographer engages in the lives and concerns of those studied, his perspective “is intertwined with the phenomenon which does not have objective characteristics independent of the observer’s perspective and methods” (Mishler 1979:10). The ethnographer cannot take in everything; rather, he will, in conjunction with those in the setting, develop certain perspectives by engaging in some activities and relationship rather than others. Moreover, it will often be the case that relationships with those under study follow political fault lines in the setting, exposing the ethnographer selectively to varying priorities and points of view. As a result, the task of the ethnographer is not to determine “the truth” but to reveal the multiple truths apparent in others’ lives.

That is from Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes, by Robert Emerson, Rachel Fretz, and Linda Shaw. I’m considering the book for a course I will teach next year, tentatively titled: “Political Science Research in the Field.”

As I learn more about ethnographic research, I continue to struggle with how we evaluate findings that cannot be replicated. It is not that the evidence isn’t valuable, but I am curious if there are equivalents to confidence intervals…

"research team", Ulongwe, Balaka District, Malawi, August 2008

2 Comments leave one →
  1. 11 May 2011 12:04 pm

    I don’t know, but I would love to work on a paper on that last question…

  2. Martin permalink
    13 May 2011 6:08 pm

    I don’t think that anything like a confidence interval is possible, but in terms of validating, then the use of multiple fieldworkers is definitely the go

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